SI Vault
William Nack
September 30, 1991
As his unparalleled career winds down, A.J. Foyt still looks for fulfillment
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September 30, 1991

Twilight Of A Titan

As his unparalleled career winds down, A.J. Foyt still looks for fulfillment

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He edges the Honda down the road that lines the fields, where bands of broodmares, some with suckling foals at their sides, are grazing with the cattle. Past the watering troughs and the hay barn, up past the oaks and the pond with a jetty reaching out almost to the middle of it. "My father wired all this, ran the lights," Foyt says, his arm sweeping the pens and sheds. "I dug the pond. See that strip of land? I built that so my mother could drive her little motor home out there and fish off it. I got it stocked with bass. Call it Nanny's Lake...."

Up beyond Nanny's Lake, Foyt pulls off the road and parks the car next to the large, orange workshed. Stepping inside the shed, he points straight up, to the runners on which the sliding doors operated. "This was the last building that Daddy wired before he died," says Foyt. "I closed the door one day and looked up and there it was. I thought, 'I'll be goddamned! There's that hammer I've been looking for for over a year. I said to one of the workers, 'You're not going to believe where the old man left that hammer. Look right above your head.' Daddy left it up there and I ain't never taking it down."

Because the ranch was where he and his father worked side by side, A.J. moving the earth, Tony doing the plumbing and the wiring, today it serves as a kind of monument to their work—the hedges trimmed and the lawns edged and clipped around a spacious brick house that sits on a circular drive behind stone gates crowned with concrete horses' heads. The ranch is Foyt's personal dig. He is out there, on the seat of that chuffing bulldozer, trying to unearth what he still surely longs for, as if father love were some lost city and he will find it if he just keeps digging. So, to be sure, the place represents, for him, an unending search for the missing and inexpressible. Five years ago, a friend of Foyt's, commentator Jack Arute of ABC and HSPN. asked him to define "love, love of your family."

Foyt replied: "It's hard for me to.... I probably don't show partiality to nobody. No individual that much. I've had a lot of people say, 'You just don't love nobody.' I guess I do, but I guess I'm kind of like my father. It's hard for me to show.... But I don't know. I've worked all my life. And I guess what I have love for more than anything is work. I love to get on my bulldozer. I love to take land and clear it and try to make it pretty. I also love the challenges of business."

Anthony Joseph Foyt Jr. may have been his mother's boy, but he is his father's son. He has been challenging his corner of the world, largely on his own terms, since he first crawled into the little red open-wheel racer, with the Briggs-Stratton engine, that his father gave him to patrol the yard in when he was three. When he wore that out, Tony built him a midget-type racer that could hit 50 mph, and one night, at the old Houston Speed Bowl, Tony arranged for A.J. to challenge one of the leading adult drivers. Doc Cossey, to a three-lap duel. Little A.J. led Cossey into the first turn, to the cheering of the crowds, threw it sideways into the dirt corners, to even louder roars, and came charging home in front, to an ovation.

He was five. And, for then and forever, a race car driver.

The family lived in the Heights, a working-class section in north Houston, across the street from a pickle factory and not far from the garage where Tony worked on other people's cars—he kept his own race cars at home. A.J. spent hours at his father's knee, poking under hoods and chassis, learning how things all worked. "When I was a little bitty kid, I'd do anything, just to be with him," A.J. says. Just as his mother embraced him, so his father disciplined him. "A.J. was definitely very afraid of his dad," says Lucy. When A.J. was 11, with the help of friends he took his father's midget race car off the trailer, fired up the flathead Ford V-8 and rode it around the yard like a cowboy on a bull, nearly tearing off a corner of the house and turning the yard into a plowed field. The ride ended when the engine burst into flames, bubbling the paint on the hood.

Waiting for the whipping, A.J. was in bed when his parents came home that night, and he could hear his father roaring toward the bedroom. Tony snatched him out of bed, and the boy could hear his mother pleading, "Please don't whip him, please don't whip him," and above that his father yelling, "You do something like that again, I'll beat you to death!"

Five years later, A.J. committed that most unpardonable of all sins in the eyes of his father. The boy and some friends were hotrodding around Houston in A.J.'s 1950 ford when the police spotted them and gave chase. A friend was doing the driving, A.J. says, and he asked him to pull over. When the other boy kept gunning it, Foyt says, "I jumped out of the car." The boys eventually ditched the Ford, and the police picked it up. When the old man asked his son about the car—Tony had bought it for him and was still making payments on it—that was when A.J. did it. He lied to his father. "It was stolen," A.J. said. Of course, the police soon found out what had happened, called the boys in and advised them that their fathers had been summoned.

Given a choice, A.J. would have opted for the gallows. "Just put me in the reform school," he said, "I don't want to see my daddy. I lied to him. He always said he'd beat me to death for lying. Unmercifully! Please, just let me go...."

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